I am currently taking a week off from work, which means a week not leading worship. Instead of going to morning worship today, I will be in worship this evening, either for evensong or compline. I am taking some time this morning to say a few things about what it means for me to be Christian.
Via Negativa - what God is not.
1. God does not "live" in the sky. Well, God does not "live" in that God is not organic - at least, God exists in and out of the organic.
2. God is not gendered.
3. God is not a person.
4. God does not think.
5. God does not choose.
6. God is not omnipotent (more on that later).
7. God is not Christian.
8. God is not a noun and therefore the modifiers "a" and "the" make no sense.
9. If God is not a noun (which is my premise), then God is not. (Because of this, I do not identify as a theist or a deist - I am a "non-theistic" Christian.")
10. "God" is not a name.
On to something a little more constructive. What God is.
1. "God" is what people have used as a place holder for the ineffable. It points to something as close as our breath and as incomprehensible as, well, something incomprehensible.
2. In my working definition of "God," that word - "God" - points to the force and the movement that bend toward compassion and justice. That's God.
3. God is not omnipotent in that God is relational. Relationship implies serving as both actor and the acted upon. We affect God. That means that God can be changed. In fact, to me, changing and "godding" are quite interlinked.
4. "Godding" - We usually say "God," which is a noun and has definition - edges. But the divine is bigger than that - undefinable. Literally. There are no edges to God. Nouns, by their very existence, have beginnings and ends. For the sake of grammatical convenience, I talk about God a lot. But, in my heart, I know that there is no "god" - there is "godding." God is an active verb. God is a doing.
5. Since God is not a noun or a person (much less gendered), God does not act as we act. God does not have a divine brain that "thinks," "chooses," or "decides." But God does indeed act in particular ways, those ways that move toward wholeness, compassion, and justice.
6. Since God is without beginning and end, God existed before Christianity and God exists outside of Christianity. Claiming exclusive rights to God is idolatrous.
7. God is mystery.
What does all of this mean?
Even if God is ineffable, we live in a world of speech. This is one of the reasons that the creation story has so much truth in it. We speak our worlds. Language creates. It totally shapes how we understand and experience life. So, we have to come up with the best language that we can.
The struggle for how to think about and put language to God is a very old struggle. St. Anselm once used an a priori argument that included this supposition, that God is "a being than which no greater being can be conceived.” Of course, I don't think God is a being, but Anselm is grappling with the ineffability of God just as I am...just as we all are.
So, I use the language that we have, the metaphors of our world, and the reductionistic thoughts that make talking about God easier. I also use the very powerful tool of story.
We are storied people. If a person is asked who he or she is, a story comes to mind. Given the circumstance, that story will change. If a boss asks, an employment and education story comes to mind. If a new friend, a different story will come to mind. A new dating partner, yet another one. Things that typically build our stories include geography, parents, ancestry, religion, passions, wounds, and so forth. These things make up our stories. But, we are also part of those stories. For example, coming from the South is part of my story, but my life is also part of the ongoing Southern narrative even though I no longer live there. I am Southern. Always. Whenever Southerners do crazy things, I feel a little embarrassment. Why should that be? I don't live there. I did not do that action. I had no hand in that. Whenever we discuss the difficulty history of the South, I cringe inside. Why? Again, I was not there. I did not own slaves or create Jim Crow laws, although I benefited from that unjust legacy. And, the opposite is also true. Whenever a great Southern author is discussed, I feel some pride. Why? I did not write that book. I never met that author. However, the South is part of me and I a part of it. Always. And forever. I am in relationship with that story. Sometimes that relationship is easy and wonderful. Other times it is a relationship fraught with conflict and resistance.
Christianity is my story. I was born into it. The rhythm of my culture moved around the Christian calendar. At school, we took Christmas and Easter breaks and the stores were closed on Sunday. My home life moved around the rhythms of Christianity as well. We went to church on Sundays, attended Vacation Bible School, prayed before meals and before bed time. We went to Sunday School, celebrated Christmas and Easter. We prayed family devotions and talked about Jesus. When something bad happened, Jesus was invoked as a standard bearer in how to deal with the situation. When a wrong was committed, I was challenged to forgive as Jesus taught. We prayed the Lord's Prayer. My father's family was Southern Baptist and my mom's family was Methodist. Two of my ancestors were circuit riders in the Methodist tradition. The doxologies, hymnody, order of service, calendar, colors, smells, and little rituals became a part of me as they were practiced in formal ritual and in daily life. I am Christian in name, practice, and time. It is the Christian story that helps me connect to the ineffable. Christianity is not and has never been a set of beliefs; it is a story lived by people every day.
Once I was older and off on my own, like many young adults I dabbled in all kinds of religion. I dabbled with Unitarians, wiccans, and Episcopalians. I looked long and hard at Judaism and Buddhism. But, it all came down to one thing: Despite my problems with a great deal of Christianity, it is me and I it. I belong to it and it belongs to me. I could no more convert than decide to be a Martian.
So, it is through the Christian story that I relate with the ultimately relational godding that bends toward compassion and justice. So, I talk about God as a person. I use gendered language (both male and female). I talk about "God" and put that word in the subject line of the sentence. I find my story in the Bible. I wrestle as Jacob did (see that nice use of my story to talk about my story??) with the violence, prejudice, and difficulties of Christianity.
And still I try to remain aware that all of our language, all of our stories, all that we dream of cannot contain the wonder of godding. Because of this, I have deep respect for Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, agnostics, atheists, and people from faiths all over the world. These folks, too, are trying to make sense of that which is beyond our cognition and to live lives connected to something bigger and more wonderful than themselves.
In the end, "Christianity" is not a belief system for me, it is a way
of life that begins with a story and moves into continuing the work of
Jesus to heal, restore, reconcile, and resurrect. And "faith" is not intellectually assenting to a list of precepts, it is trusting in the actions of God to move the world and me toward these very things - health, restoration, reconciliation, and resurrection.
I feel "called" by God to set my life apart from other pursuits to help others locate themselves within stories, to find home after long sojourns in exile, and to claim language that makes them and the world more whole.
I am not a systematic theologian and have little room for such activities. Of course, we need to have some sense of wholeness in our relationship with God, but in the end God will always be a giant mystery for us.
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